How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Even in a war that has gone poorly for Russia, the Russian Defense Ministry’s November 9 announcement of a full retreat from the city of Kherson marked a special kind of disaster. Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city seized by Moscow after the invasion, and it was one of the four regions that Russia had illegally annexed just five weeks earlier, following sham referendums. In October, the city’s occupying authorities had plastered its streets with billboards declaring that Russia would be there “forever,” and Moscow had told Russian citizens that the city’s occupation was one of the war’s major successes. But by the time of the annexation, Russian forces were already struggling to hold their lines in the face of continued Ukrainian advances. Eventually, Russian leaders were forced to withdraw and to shore up defenses around Crimea and in the east.
This embarrassing retreat—which follows Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv province in September—has caused many Russian elites to question and challenge the invasion. People who opposed the war from the outset (but who stayed silent to stay safe) have been joined by many people who actively supported the war but are now convinced that the invasion has been mishandled from the start and privately want it to end. Some of them worry that Russian President Vladimir Putin is unfit to lead, prone to missteps, and overly emotional in his decision-making.
People from Russia’s prominent “patriotic,” pro-war political forces, who recently called on Moscow to continue the fight until the Russian army reaches Kyiv, have now started to sound much more realistic. On the popular pro-military Telegram channel Obraz Buduschego (the Image of the Future), an anonymous correspondent wrote that Moscow should try to freeze the conflict and carry out domestic reforms. Yury Baranchik, a prominent Russian patriot on Telegram, argued that Moscow’s blitzkrieg had failed and that Russia should stop trying to push forward and that it should instead entrench its existing positions and focus on domestic issues. The famous state television pundit Aleksander Medvedev recently said that Russia has to admit that the situation in Ukraine is poor, and he acknowledged that Moscow will face more defeats. Even aggressive nationalists, such as Aleksei Zhivov, have argued that the war shows that Russia’s political system has failed. Many of these analysts insist that Russia, instead of fighting in Ukraine, should do some housekeeping to deal with domestic issues—including corruption.
Some in the West may believe that Russia’s growing domestic discord presents an opportunity, and that there may even be an influential Russian constituency that wants Moscow to soften its rhetoric and engage in genuine negotiations with Kyiv and the West to end the war. But even if there is growing domestic demand to “rethink” the war and focus on internal problems, there are serious complications that make it hard for these realists to turn into peacemakers. Russia’s realists are wary of any negotiations that might lead to a humiliating resolution, which could threaten their political future—or even their physical safety. Notably, no one in Russia’s leadership has publicly supported any form of territorial concessions, which would amount to an acknowledgment of Russia’s defeat and could lead to criminal prosecution. (Russian law forbids any calls for territory disintegration, and Moscow now considers much of Ukraine to be part of Russia.) For the same reason, the country’s elites will not dare turn against Russian President Vladimir Putin. For all his failures, Russia’s leader remains their best bet for preserving the regime that keeps them safe.
If the West wants these realists to transform into a party of peace, it should make it extremely clear to Moscow that peace would not lead to a Russian strategic disaster or state collapse. Otherwise, domestic politics will continue to favor war. No one will suggest peace out of fear of being purged, even if Russia continues to lose. Instead, as the defeats pile up, Moscow will become more unhinged.
In Putin’s Russia, there are many ways to define defeat. For its military leadership, defeat is an accumulation of battlefield setbacks; for the nationalist hard-liners, it entails allowing Ukraine’s “anti-Russia” state to exist at all; and for the security services, it means losing a major Russian confrontation with the West. For the regular elites, it means anything that threatens their personal and political security. But for almost all of Russia’s main constituencies, including the realists, withdrawing Russian forces to their pre-invasion lines of control would meet their criteria. Such a move would not only mark the end of Russian influence over Ukraine but also usher in a humiliating new geopolitical reality for Moscow.
And to Russia’s elites, a withdrawal would be more than humiliating; it would be dangerous. They do not think that if they simply agree to withdraw to Russia’s pre-February 24 positions and negotiate to control parts of Donetsk and Luhansk they can reconcile with Ukraine. They don’t believe that Moscow can end hostilities without risking losing Crimea. In fact, they believe that if Russia withdrew its troops to where they were at the start of 2022, it would leave Russia itself vulnerable to collapse. As Dmitri Trenin, the former director of the (now shuttered) Carnegie Moscow think tank, wrote in May, “the strategic defeat” that the West “is preparing for Russia” means that “the theater of the ‘hybrid war’ will simply move from Ukraine further east, into the borders of Russia itself, the existence of which in its current form will be in question.” On Russian Telegram channels, many Russians have implied that the West would insist on dismissing Putin as a part of possible agreement. Many conservatives believe that if Putin fell as a result of such a deal, his regime would eventually be followed by a more pro-Western government that would betray Russia’s strategic interests and allow the country to physically disintegrate. To put it simply, the Russian elite sees the war against Ukraine not as expansionary but as a war for self-preservation.
Many Russians believe that the collapse of the state would be followed by international criminal investigations, perhaps even a war crimes tribunal. This prospect frightens even Russian elites not involved in the fighting. Since the war began, Putin’s regime has not allowed any leading members of Russia’s public or private sector to stay on the sidelines. Officials who tried to distance themselves from the invasion—as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, central bank head Elvira Nabiullina, and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin all apparently did—have been effectively conscripted into the war effort. Mishustin, for example, was appointed by Putin to lead the “special coordination council,” which Putin created to bring together civilian and military leaders to meet the government’s wartime needs. But far from empowering technocrats to check and balance the influence of the military and security apparatus, the council has been incorporated into the military’s agenda and made to act in accordance with the military’s priorities. Mishustin now serves the armed forces’ needs by securing the economy’s wartime mobilization. He has little time to move forward on his own peacetime agenda and focus on the development of Russia’s modern economy.
The Russian elite sees the war against Ukraine as a war for self-preservation.
The war has also changed Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s domestic policy chief. Once a technocrat, Kiriyenko seemed to take advantage of the war to bolster his position, becoming responsible for the political integration of the occupied parts of Ukraine into Russia. But in reality, Kiriyenko was ill prepared for the challenges of military occupation, and he has been pushed to cooperate more closely with the security services. In response, he has begun imitating the hawks around him and largely shed his past reputation as a pragmatic, if sycophantic, operator.
Many other once moderate elites have had a similar trajectory. Today, the Putin regime has been adopting elements of a military dictatorship. Despite recent criticism of Russia’s war strategy, the hawks are ascendant, and political repression has destroyed any real opposition by quickly silencing displays of outright dissent against the regime itself. The pro-war fervor has made militaristic but previously marginal elites, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary Wagner Group, even more noisy and provocative. And it has pushed many other figures in the regime to adopt extreme views they previously shunned. Even Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chair of Russia’s security council, who as president from 2008 to 2012 was considered a liberal, has started issuing wild diatribes against NATO and Ukraine over Telegram. Today’s political mainstream consists of a rising univocal, powerful, and intolerant pro-war movement for which the invasion is existential. To them, victory must be secured by all means possible—including through nuclear weapons. They see no place for peace initiatives.
In this context, the rise of the realists could prove critical to ending the conflict. They understand that Russia’s current path is suicidal and that carrying out more atrocities and wasting shrinking resources would worsen Russia’s already deteriorating position in a conflict that Moscow will eventually have to end. But even though they want to halt the invasion, they have a complicated path.
For Russia’s elites, demonstrating support for the war—if not for the way it is currently being fought—is the key to political survival. Many increasingly voice support for escalation, a theme that has become mainstream. Despite the different interests in play, technocrats, security operatives, conservative nationalists, and business leaders are largely united in believing that Russia cannot lose, lest it result in the collapse of the regime on which they all depend.
But Moscow is becoming deeply divided on how to accomplish that task. The war’s biggest proponents, including ideological conservatives such as Nikolai Patrushev and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, want to carry out a full mobilization, conscripting Russia’s entire eligible population and putting the entire Russian economy on a wartime footing, and hit Ukraine with everything they have—including nuclear weapons. (Russia has recently been carrying out a large-scale media campaign aimed at making the world believe that Russia can and would use these weapons if needed.) These ultranationalists still envision a clear victory, with Kyiv eventually falling into Russian hands. The growing chorus of realists, by contrast, has come to see that Moscow does not have the resources that it needs to win. Instead, they favor an approach in which Russia avoids more defeat by freezing the war where it is, digging defensive lines around their current positions and using reinforcements to stop the Ukrainian advance.
There is no one in the Russian elite who will support a Russian withdrawal to the country’s February 24 positions. It is possible, however, that the realists could publicly push for freezing the conflict in a temporary agreement with the West (sealed with Ukraine). First, however, they would need to overcome the radical hawks, who are ready to fight in Ukraine until the bitter end and who remain dominant in domestic political discourse. To do so, they will have to convince Putin to personally acknowledge reality and opt for a more sober approach to the conflict. But even if Putin gives up and admits that the best Russia can do is freeze the war, it will not assuage elite fears about Russia’s survival and territorial integrity in face of the West, which even the realists believe wants to subjugate Russia.
There is little that the United States and Europe can do to insulate realists from domestic threats. But if the West wants to strengthen its voice in the Kremlin, it should outline a proposal in which Russian-Ukrainian peace talks would result in a simultaneous Russian-U.S. dialogue over Moscow’s strategic concerns. This dialogue would be designed to firmly guarantee to Moscow that Russia would continue to be a stable, autonomous state. The United States could do this by agreeing to discuss the future of NATO. The West would also have to offer Russia guarantees that Ukraine will not be used as part of a Western “anti-Russia” project, as Putin alleges.
Given all the horrible things Russia has done, this outcome would not be terribly satisfying for Ukraine or its Western partners. But under the current circumstances, Putin believes he has no choice but to continue bombing and attacking Ukraine. And unlike many of Russia’s elites, Putin believes that Ukraine is still doomed. His present personal goal is tactical—stopping Kyiv’s attacks, holding the line, and then waiting until the Ukrainian state collapses, which he believes is just a matter of time. Putin could even escalate, turning to nuclear weapons. Signaling to the realists that peace with Ukraine will not inevitably cause Russia to collapse is a dramatically challenging task. But it may be the only way to get the Kremlin to end its catastrophic invasion. Until then, even the realist elites have no choice but to bet on the strong state and the strongman.